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Black British Writers Demand Tangible Change From Publishers In Open Letter

Black Ballad was created in 2014 because our founder, Tobi Oredein, recognised that the space for her as a black female journalist in the British media industry was narrow, if not almost non-existent.

This week marks three years since Black Ballad relaunched as a membership platform and in this short space of time we are proud to have created a platform that champions the work of black women writers from a range of backgrounds, life experiences and with all our diverse perspectives. Unfortunately, it is clear that even in 2020 so much of what has been said and "done" around "diversity and inclusion" in industries like media and publishing is nothing but lip service.

It is shameful that so much of the actual work around championing diverse voices from Black British authors falls to independent publishing houses like Jacaranda Press, Cassava Republic and Knights Of, who have a fraction of the budget and resources that larger publishing houses have. They put larger publishers to shame and their contributions to the literary landscape cannot be heralded enough.

We stand with the Black British writers – which include women who have written for and been featured in Black Ballad – who have signed below to demand more than diversity panels and schemes that do nothing to actually build the careers of talented black writers or allow black publishing professionals to thrive and advance. It is time they put their money where their mouth is.

We are the Black Writers’ Guild, representing the Black publishing community in the UK. Our membership group includes over 200 published Black writers, including some of Britain's best-selling authors and leading literary figures. 

The protest movement sweeping the world since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has forced an international soul searching to understand the pervasive racial inequalities that haunt most sectors of our society – including our own major institutions and industries.  

Publishers have taken advantage of this moment to amplify the marketing of titles by their Black authors and release statements of support for the Black communities who have been campaigning for equality for decades.  

Although we welcome your support at this time, we are deeply concerned that British publishers are raising awareness of racial inequality without significantly addressing their own.

We are calling on you to help us tackle the deep-rooted racial inequalities in the major corporate publishing companies and support grassroots Black literary communities such as booksellers, book clubs and the Black Writers’ Guild.

We request the following:

  1. We would like there to be an audit of the books published by Black authors. This should include genres, the submission-to-acquisition ratio of Black authors in the past five years and the median and mode of the advances of Black authors. We’d also like data on the roles of Black staff across the business. Rather than relying on anecdotal information, the data is crucial for us to better understand the current situation and how each area can be resolved for equality.
  2. We are concerned that an absence of Black commissioners who understand our communities and nuanced life experiences is limiting the ability to find the stories that best capture and reflect the sensibilities within them, to market them and also identify new talent across a broad range of areas. We are calling on publishers to hire Black commissioners at every level of their companies.
  3. We are aware that there is a worrying absence of Black publishing staff in key positions in sales, marketing and publicity departments. These roles are vital in the acquisitions process and, in addition, these specific roles are focused on books reaching readers from a range of backgrounds, so diversity is essential. This also extends to designers and illustrators who are an important part of the messaging and engagement of a book – there is a woeful lack of Black talent in this area.
  4. One of the biggest complaints about publishers amongst Black writers who do not start out with a notable profile is that our books are misunderstood by both editors and the marketing departments. Our books can often require additional support to reach the audiences who should be sought beyond the usual retailer pathways. We would like publishers to create a ring-fenced fund for marketing and specialist publicity focus to support the books of new and emerging Black talent.
  5. We are deeply concerned by the absence of any Black members on core leadership boards. In 2020 this is unacceptable as well as unsustainable in the modern world. We are asking publishers to address and rectify this immediately.
  6. We would like publishers to help us lobby to expand the pool of literary agents and build a network of Black literary agents and talent scouts for emerging Black talent that reaches beyond London into Black communities in the nations and regions. This should also extend to buyers and booksellers to ensure the whole supply chain is knowledgeable and committed to working with our narratives.
  7. We ask that publishers make an additional financial commitment to new awards recognising and amplifying Black talent as well as other initiatives such as a festival, and a literary magazine that can help build and foster readers from the Black community.
  8. We believe there is a disconnect between Black stakeholders in publishing and senior decision-makers in the industry. We believe each company should have a mechanism for stakeholders and senior executives to have a direct relationship to discuss concerns and trends in the output of publishers. We would like to work with publishers to create this.

We maintain that all of these requests will not only help to guard against pervasive racial inequality but will unearth more talent and help nurture a thriving literary culture in this country. We ask for your partnership in achieving this and look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,

The Black Writers’ Guild, Abidemi Sanusi, Adeola Solanke, Adjoa Wiredu, Afua Hirsch, Ale McKenzie, Alexandra Sheppard, Aniefiok 'Neef' Ekpoudom, Anni Domingo, Avril E. Russell, Azariah France-Williams, Benjamin Zephaniah, Bernardine Evaristo, Bryan Judith, Candice Carty-Williams, Carol Russell, Catherine Johnson, Charlene Allcott, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, Cherish Shirley, Cheryl Ndione, Chine McDonald, Clementine Burnley, Cleo Lake, Courttia Newland, Daniel Taylor, Daniellè Dash, David Olusoga, Degna Stone, Denise Saul, Derek Bardowell, Derek Owusu, Desiree Reynolds, Desree, Diana Evans, Dianna Hunt, Dipo Baruwa-Etti, Dorothy Koomson, Dr Althea-Maria Rivas, Elijah Lawal, Elontra Hall, Emma Dabiri, Esua Jane Goldsmith, Evan Larbi, Frances Williams, Gabriella Beckles-Raymond, Georgina Lawton, Inua Ellams, Irenosen Okojie, Jade Benn, Jasmine Richards, Jeffrey Boakye, Jemilea Wisdom-Baako, Jendella Benson, Jennifer Nansubuga, Jessica Lauren Elizabeth, Jessica Morgan, Johny Pitts, Kayo Chingonyi, Kehinde Andrews, Keith Jarrett, Kit de Waal, Kuba Shand-Baptiste, Kuchenga, Kwadjo Dajan, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Lisa Bent, Liv Little, Lola Okolosie, Louise Hare, Louise Ogunnaike, Luan Goldie, Lynda Rosenior-Patt, Lynsey Martenstyn, Maame Blue, Magdalene Abraha, Malika Booker, Malorie Blackman, Marcus Ryder, Marverine Cole, Melissa Cummings-Quary, Munroe Bergdorf, Musa Okwonga, Nadifa Mohamed, Nadine Matheson, Natalie Carter, Natasha Bowen, Nels Abbey, Nesrine Malik, Nick Makoha, Nicola Rollock, Nicolas Tyrell Scott, Njambi McGrath, Okechukwu Nzelu, Oladipo Agboluaje, Olumide Popoola, Oluwaseun Matiluko, Omega Douglas, Patrice Lawrence, Paul Gilroy, Paul Mendez, Rachael Corson, Raymond Antrobus, Sara Collins, Sareeta Domingo, Selina Nwulu, Sharmaine Lovegrove, Sharna Jackson, Shaun Clarke, Simon Osunsade, Sir Lenny Henry, Sofia Akel, Stella Akinade-Ahmadou, Stephen Thompson, Symeon Brown, Tolu Agbelusi, Uju Asika, Valerie Brandes, Yomi Sode, Yvonne Battle-Felton, Yvvette Edwards